3 Things About: Sympathy for the Devil

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Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Michael Mewshaw. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (200 pp.)

  • By his death in 2012, at age 86, the novelist and essayist Gore Vidal was celebrated for his “exceptional imagination, wit, and intelligence,” as his long-time friend Michael Mewshaw says in this gossipy, highly readable, no-holds-barred memoir. A splendid essayist, best-selling author of historical novels, and frequent talk-show guest, he lived the carefree life of a millionaire, with homes in California and Italy. Mewshaw, a British writer, wrote many magazine pieces on Vidal and draws on juicy parts never published to bring us this rounded view of a complex figure.  Above all, he wants us to know Vidal was not an uncaring misanthrope (as portrayed in the press) but  “funny, generous, and hospitable.”
  • Alas, he was also a falling-down drunk, writes Mewshaw, who on more than one occasion helped lift his friend up out of the street in Rome.  There, and in Ravello, Vidal spent his mature years with Howard Austen, his long-time partner, who managed his lavish homes and finances.  Forever garbed in a blue blazer and gray slacks and playing “the  yoga of world weariness,” he maintained a dodgy tax status in Italy (his “luxury hotel”) and kept secret bank accounts, which presumably helped make up the $37 million he left Harvard University. He often complained that he was tired of living; Howard would reply: “Go ahead and drop dead.”
  • Always outrageous in his speech, Vidal excelled at quotable insults and put downs.  “What are the three saddest words in the English language?” he asked, waited a beat, and answered, “Joyce Carol Oates.” What did he like best about Rome–the light? the people? “What I like is you could go up to Pincio at night and buy any boy you wanted for five hundred lire,” he said. His many acquaintances amused or interested him, but he seldom showed them  warmth and affection.  His professed early love for an adolescent boy named Jimmie Trimble was probably made up–”a rationalization for his lifelong failure to express love,” writes Mewshaw.

-Joseph Barbato, editor of Red Weather Review, is an author and journalist who has written on literary topics for many publications. He is a former columnist at Publishers Weekly and a regular contributor at Kirkus Reviews.

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